15:04 PM

A Tale of Two Sustainable Cities

New $750K NSF Convergence research will help turn Pittsburgh and Atlanta into model circular economy cities

While the circular economy—a model where products and materials are by design kept in continual use —is being discussed and debated at the highest levels of government and global organizations, cities and communities are the front line of implementation. Getting a circular economy (CE) to work in practice requires collaboration between government, businesses, local stakeholders and everyone in between. 

To that end, a research team from the University of Pittsburgh’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation and Swanson School of Engineering and the University of Georgia College of Engineering are leading a project to collect and analyze data in Pittsburgh and Georgia to build a more circular economy. The project, “A Tale of Two Cities: Optimizing Circularity from Molecules to the Built Environment,” received $749,997 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of its Convergence Accelerator, which is supporting 16 multidisciplinary teams advancing the circular economy.

“We’re connecting and converging a path forward toward a circular economy across multiple materials and scales, and we’re doing it in two large metropolitan areas in geographically different regions,” said Melissa Bilec, co-director of Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, Special Assistant to the Provost for Sustainability, William Kepler Whiteford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Pitt. “If we are successful, this model could be translated to other locations through the U.S. and globally, and maybe eventually scaling to thousands of cities.” 

The team is led by University of Georgia’s professor of environmental engineering Jenna Jambeck and also includes Bilec and Pitt Distinguished Service Professor Eric Beckman as co-PIs. Seven industry, government and NGO partners will also participate.

The team is examining all levels of circularity, from the molecular level (How can polymers, coatings, and fiber be optimized for recycling?) all the way to the built environment (How can construction account for end-of-life deconstruction so the components can be reused?).

Melissa Bilec MCSI-1

From the Ground Up

Over the next year, the researchers will use the Circularity Assessment Protocol (CAP) developed by Jambeck’s Circularity Informatics Lab to collect community-level data on material usage and management - looking at things like local product design and the built environment, waste collection and infrastructure, and what kinds of materials could contaminate the environment. 

For one part of the project, the data will be publicly available through the Debris Tracker open access tool developed by Jambeck’s lab. The tracker allows users to log litter and plastic pollution in their communities, and so far it has tracked over 6 million items around the world.

An important part of the project is listening to the community’s needs and opinions concerning pollution, environmental justice, and more.

“A circular economy is a model that requires input from disciplines as diverse as chemistry, biology, engineering, business, economics, social sciences, and behavioral sciences,” said Bilec. “But most importantly, it requires input from the community.”

In Pittsburgh, key partners include the Green Building Alliance, Construction Junction, and Covestro—which is also partnering with Pitt to launch the Covestro Circular Economy Program. Atlanta-based partners include the City of Atlanta and the Lifecycle Building Center.

Eric Beckman

A Confluence of Circularity

The team is building on momentum and findings from the NSF Convergence Accelerator Workshop that Bilec led in 2020: Design for a Circular Economy from Molecules to the Built Environment.

The NSF Convergence Accelerator program uses a convergence approach, bringing together teams from various fields to transition their basic research to high-impact solutions for societal challenges. The first phase of this funding includes a curriculum for researchers that will help the team strengthen its collaboration and accelerate their initial idea toward real-world solutions. 

“This funding is an opportunity to make a real impact and improve the environment, the economy and society,” said Beckman. “If we’re successful in Pittsburgh and Atlanta in creating a more circular economy, then that shows that all communities have the potential to make a positive difference.”

Bilec added, “Pittsburgh is becoming a hub for circular economy research, and this project is an exciting step forward in that journey.”